At BorrowLenses.com we get a lot of phone calls from potential customers with questions regarding which gear to use for certain types of photography. Of those calls, one of the most prominent is “What is the best wide angle lens to rent for landscapes?” The answer is there are plenty of great lenses to choose from, but which lens is best depends heavily on which camera body you are using. When we ask people what camera they have, the majority respond that they are shooting with a crop-sensor body, and this affects lens selection in a significant way. Crop sensor bodies from Canon include the 10-60D, Rebel series and 7D. On the Nikon side there are the D4/5/6/7/8/90, D7000 and D300 series.
First of all, if you’re not familiar with the differences between a full-frame camera, and a crop-sensor camera, check that link or follow along as we explain briefly. Before digital photography we had film, and the size of piece of film was roughly 35mm across. Therefore, a camera that is “full frame” has a sensor that is the same size as that piece of film – it’s 36mm x 24mm in size. This sensor, since it is so large, is very expensive to produce, so the large majority of cameras on the market have a smaller sensor, which is known as a “crop-sensor.” It’s called this because it’s as if you cropped the middle of a full-frame sensor out to be smaller.
Why is this important? Because the size of the sensor affects the effective focal length of lenses due to what is known as the “crop factor” of a camera. Bodies with crop-sensors magnify the focal length by a certain ratio; Canon’s crop factor is 1.6, while Nikon’s is 1.5. This translates to a 50mm lens becoming an 80mm lens on Canon, and a 75mm lens on Nikon. On a full-frame camera, a 50mm lens is precisely 50mm. This is a significant matter in landscape photography as one typically wants to go super-wide in order to capture a sweeping, panoramic image. However, crop-sensor camera bodies can typically never go as wide as full-frame due to their smaller sensors, however, there are some exceptions.
Now, on to the lenses themselves. Which are unequivocally, hands-down, the best lenses for landscape photography? From our experience, the Canon 14mm f/2.8 prime and the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 zoom are the cat’s meow when it comes to wide angle lenses. Although these lenses are designed to be used with full-frame cameras, they can also be used on crop sensor camera bodies, though the crop factor comes into play, transforming them both into 21mm lenses on the wide end. The Canon prime is fast and sharp, and also rectilinear so straight lines stay straight instead of curving; a major advantage for shooting landscapes and architecture. The Nikon lens, which is also fast and amazingly sharp (for a zoom), offers an ideal focal length range for wide angle photography. The Nikon lens is so good Canon shooters even use it via a third-party adapter. You will find it difficult to take a bad photo with either of these lenses because they produce images that are tack sharp.
But are there alternatives? Of course, and when discussing lenses for crop-sensor cameras, often times you have to go with a lens that starts out at 10mm in order to arrive at 15mm. On the Canon side of things there is the Canon 10-22mm f/3.5 – 4.5, which is a lens built exclusively for its line of crop-sensor bodies (Rebel, 50D, 7D, etc). It’s not the fastest lens at f/3.5 on the wide end, but since most landscape photography involves a tripod this is not a deal-killer. It’s wicked sharp, light and easy to carry, and also very affordable (as opposed to the $2,000 Canon 14mm) .
For Nikonians, there is a fantastic Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5 – 4.5, which is the widest possible lens for crop-sensor Nikon bodies (D90, D7000, D40, etc). It’s sharp, has AF-S auto-focus so it is compatible with all Nikon bodies, and is light and easy to use.
Don’t like variable aperture lenses? We don’t blame you; we don’t either. But, since most landscape photography require an f stop of at least f/8 to maximize depth of field, having a wide aperture isn’t too much of a concern unless you plan on shooting handheld in low light, which is not common.
Alternatively, if you want a lens that is both wide and sports a fast aperture (wide aperture, in other words), there is the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 for both Canon and Nikon. Although it is a third party lens, it performs just as well as the Canon and Nikon equivalent and is the only wide-angle lens designed for crop-sensor cameras that features a fast, constant f/2.8 aperture throughout the focal range.